The death of my very close friend, John Joe Lakers, last month, has made me reflect on my style of prayer.
JJ told me, not long before his death, "You and I are very different." One way we were different was in our prayer preferences. I love the psalms. He could not endure them. He never attended our community prayer when it involved praying the psalms. He welcomed spontaneous prayer with others. He was partly responsible for an attempt by our community to introduce a period of spontaneous prayer in common before dinner. He even asked that we pray the Angelus then, because it recalls Jesus' becoming incarnate, which was his favorite theological theme.
Months ago I was reflecting on the Muslim practice of praying by bowing to the floor five times a day in the direction of Mecca. That very physical action (which I could not possibly do with my knees being the way they are), led me to my own physical way of praying. I began singing the psalms out loud, privately, in my room. This became so important for me that I developed the practice of singing all the psalms in the course of a month, which means using the psalms for the Office of Readings and for Midday Prayer.
Why do I find this prayerful?
I think of my childhood, when everybody used "prayer books." Maybe using "prefabricated" prayers was something that uneducated people liked. But educated people can benefit too. I first began praying the psalms in earnest in the 1960s, when the post-Vatican II turmoil had caused us to abandon the old Latin breviary and we had not yet developed something to take its place. I was struggling with my own relationship to God, and said to myself, "I need to piggy-back on these prayers that people have used for over two thousand years."
I am a child of two parents who never attended high school. I had the benefit of a fine graduate school education. I have often thought that my experience is probably shared by every person who has jumped from a "pre-modern" culture into U.S. university culture. At heart I am a 1950 parochial grade school kid. I think of Jacques Maritain's autobiography, The Peasant of the Garonne. I never read it, but its title suggests that maybe Maritain, one of the most famous Catholic intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, was having similar reflections in his old age.
As I sing the psalms, using the antiphons provided by the breviary—I love the Advent season and its antiphons—I stop to think of all the people around the world who are praying the same psalms this very day, maybe at this very moment. The majority of Catholics, and of new entrants into religious life, are today in the southern hemisphere. I think of the friars in Vietnam, where my confrere Ken Capalbo is now living and teaching. Surely, like everyone else, these men (and possibly women—do women find the psalms as prayerful as men do?) have their distractions and times of mechanical recitation. I find that I need to pray slowly, stopping to look out the window and reflect on the trees and the sky, a sky that every person in the world also sees. I think of all the monks and friars in the middle ages who prayed the psalms in Latin, using a Latin translation that often makes no sense. (Carroll Stuhlmiller, in his introduction to the ICEL version of the psalms, says that some verses are like objects you find in an attic. Nobody knows what they mean, and the elders could tell us, if only they could speak to us. Yet the mysterious objects and verses are part of what has been handed down to us.) The psalms have their rough, raw edges, reflecting periods when people's understanding of God was more primitive than the understanding preached by Jesus. The ICEL translation of Psalm 3 prays "Break their evil jaws! Smash their teeth!" This is not Jesus. But it reminds me that my ancestors in the faith had a ways to go in their understanding of what God is like. So do I.
The negative tone of so many of the psalms (the "lament" psalms) used to turn me off. I judged them as out of touch with the great advances humanity has made in solving our problems. Now, as I pray them I reflect on how my vision of the world has been too optimistic, too pollyannish. There is evil in the world. People are suffering greatly because of it. Maybe the future will hold more suffering than I have seen in my day, especially as people around the world continue to struggle for increasingly scarce resources of energy and water. I pray soberly, trying to place myself in the shoes of those who are suffering even now from the injustice of the way we do things.
I don't bow down to Mecca five times a day. I sing aloud these ancient prayers. I feel close to those Muslims who bow down, and thank God for their example.